Saturday, October 19, 2019

The Last Train

October 14th is Railway Day in Japan. It celebrates the opening day in 1872 of Japan's first railway, which was between Shimbashi Station in Tokyo and Yokohama. This was a significant step in the modernization of Japan.

October 17th is celebrated by only a few. It is remembered, however, as the day in 1943 of the opening ceremonies of the Thai-Burma Death Railway. Engine C5631, built by Nippon Sharyo in 1938 at its Narumi plant, was the locomotive used at the opening. It was hauling a cargo of Comfort Women.

This notorious engine now sits restored at the entrance of the Yasukuni Shrine's war museum in Tokyo. The museum celebrates the "Bushido" of Imperial Japan's military and it success in liberating Asia. A recent article in the right wing propaganda online magazine Japan Forward highlights the annual celebration for this wartime relic. The author dismisses the atrocities associated with building the infamous tract. 

Between June 1942 and October 1943 the POWs and forced laborers laid some 258 miles (415 km) of track from Ban Pong, Thailand (roughly 45 miles [72 km] west of Bangkok), to Thanbyuzayat, Burma (roughly 35 miles [56 km] south of Mawlamyine). Japanese forced approximately 200,000 Asian conscripts and over 60,000 Allied POWs to construct the Burma Railway. Among them were nearly 700 Americans, survivors of the USS Houston and the 131st Field Artillery/2nd Battalion (known as the “Texas Lost Battalion”), both captured on Java.

Ralph Levenberg
The truth is that more than 100,000 Asian and Allied POWs died in its making from abuse, torture, starvation, and lack of medical care. No one is sure how many of 200,000 Asian laborers died, as the Japanese did not consider them human enough to count. There were Allied POWs. As the dead cannot speak, I urge readers to comment on the piece and alert veterans groups in Australia, England, and the Netherlands. Japan Forward was created in January 2017 by the rightwing Sankei Shimbun as part of the Abe Government's stepped up PR and history revision campaign.

October 18th (2019) was the funeral for former POW of Japan Air Force Major Ralph Levenberg (September 12, 1920 – July 29, 2018) and his wife Kathie at Arlington National Cemetery. They were buried with full military honors: an Air Force Rabbi, a horse-drawn caisson, an Air Force casket team, an Air Force firing party (three shots), a bugler, an Air Force escort platoon, and an Air Force military band.

Major Levenberg was with the Army Air Corps' 17th Pursuit Squadron at Nichols Field in the Philippines when Japan attacked on December 8, 1941. The Field was destroyed on December 10th and the surviving airmen were moved to Bataan to form a provisional infantry. He and all American-Filipino troops on Bataan--estimated to be 85,000--were surrendered on April 9, 1942.

From the funeral
He was one of the small number of Jewish soldiers on the infamous Bataan Death March to Camp O'Donnell. From mid-April until most of the camp was shut down in early June 1942 and the POWs moved to Cabanatuan, thousands died. Levenberg participated in a number of grueling work details outside the camp in the Philippines before he was shipped to Japan to be a slave laborer.

Aboard the hellship Nissyo Maru, via Formosa, he arrived at the Port of Moji early August 1944. There he as taken north to the Nagoya POW Camp #2-B Narumi. This camp provided labor to Nippon Sharyo, where train engines were built and repaired. The same factory that built Engine C5631 that opened the Thai-Burma Death Railway.

Most of the time Levenberg worked in the "kitchen" boiling water for the thin soup to feed the POWs. Two weeks before the end of the war, he was savagely beaten by a guard and fell into a month-long coma. He did not revive until September 3 when he was evacuated to an American hospital ship. At liberation, he weighed 72 pounds and could not walk.

Nippon Sharyo factory still maintains the factory at Narumi where Levenberg toiled and was beaten. The Company is now owned by the rail corporation JR Central. The company is promoted by the Japanese government as wanting to build high-speed rail in the US with proposed projects between Dallas and Houston, and Baltimore and DC. The firm, however, has never apologized to nor acknowledged its American POW slaves. 

Both Nippon Sharyo and JR Central have offices in the United States. Both were alerted to Major Levenberg's funeral. Neither replied nor sent condolences.

Major Levenberg remained in the US Air Force after the war and saw combat in the Korean War. He held numerous world-wide assignments as a security professional in the Strategic Air Command and then as a U.S. civil service member of Naval Air System Command.

In retirement, Levenberg donated his time and energy to support other former POWs at the VA Hospital in Reno, Nevada. He also served on the VA's National Advisory Commission of Former Prisoners of War and as National Commander of the American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor (ADBC) from 1979 to 1980.

In 1994, he joined, on behalf of ADBC, the group of ex-POWs of the Japanese from other former Allied countries in an appeal to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights regarding these countries' failure in addressing the injustice suffered by POWs of the Japanese during WWII. The appeal was based on the denial of a previous appeal with respect to the "gross violations of human rights" committed by Japan against American POWs during WWII. (Excerpts from the appeal document for UNCHR prepared by Mr. Levenberg) Although their appeal was again denied, it led to the payment by Canada, the United Kingdom, Isle of Man, Norway, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and Australia to their former POWs of the Japanese. The United States is the only country that has not done so.

His oral history was recorded by the Library of Congress and the University of Nevada (“Nothing Had Prepared Me For This Kind of Brutality” p 570). In 1996, Dick Cavett interviewed Levenberg for his HBO series Yesteryear...1942 -- a look at the first year of America's involvement in WWII.

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